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Just a small prick – the early days of vaccination.

Edward Jenner. Image courtesy of Wellcome Institute





It is a staple of many a quiz competition: who was the first person to carry out a vaccination? Answer, of course, Edward Jenner – the country doctor from Berkeley in Gloucestershire. The story of Blossom the cow, Sarah Nelmes the milkmaid and James Phipps – the young boy given a dose of cowpox and subsequently exhibiting an immunity against small pox – is well known. But like so many stories it hides the truth, and the truth is that Jenner was not the first, by some twenty-odd years. That isn’t to lessen his contribution to immunology – and after all, he gave us the word “vaccine”, and is the man who ultimately enabled the World Health Organization to announce, in 1980, that “Smallpox is dead”. But he wasn’t the first – and he certainly wasn’t the first to come up with the idea that cowpox provided immunity against smallpox.

Enter a man who lived just round the corner from my home in Sherborne: Benjamin Jesty. He had been born in the small village of  Yetminster in around 1736 and was one of at least four children born to the local butcher, a man called Robert Jesty.

Upbury Farm, Yetminster. (Image in the public domain).

Son Benjamin grew up and became a farmer, and in March 1770 married a local girl called Elizabeth Notley and settled at Upbury Farm, next to Yetminster church.The couple went on to have four sons and three daughters, but  for the purposes of this blog, we are only interested in the two eldest children.

Country folk had long known that milkmaids made good nurses for patients suffering from small pox – simply because they never caught small pox themselves. The reason, which was not fully understood, was that the milkmaids generally came into contact with cow pox – where lesions and pustules develop on the udders of cows. The infected udders were handled by the milkmaids – they caught the cow pox and perhaps suffered a few days with a minor rash and the odd blister appearing on their hands. But they never got small pox.

In 1774 there was an outbreak of small pox in the area south of Yeovil, affecting various villages including Yetminster. Jesty was understandably worried about his family contracting the disease which was often described as The Angel of Death. It killed  a large percentage of its victims – and those that weren’t killed were often left blind and with facial disfigurations.  Jesty would not have been too worried about himself – he had had cowpox and although he had been in contact with people suffering from small-pox he had never caught the disease and felt immune. But his wife had not helped with milking the cows and had never  had the cowpox. Nor had his two eldest boys.

At that time, Jesty’s cows were all in good health – no cow pox anywhere to be seen. So Jesty marched his wife and young family over to a friend’s farm in nearby Chetnole, where the farmer had several cattle exhibiting sores and blisters on the udder.

Armed with a long needle, Jesty lanced one of the blisters and then pricked the arm of each of his two boys – thereby smearing them with the infectious material. No problem there – and both children went on to develop cow pox. In turn, they gained immunity from small pox, a fact established beyond doubt over subsequent years when they were deliberately infected with small pox – but never caught the disease. Not so lucky was Mrs Jesty. Let’s face it, mucking around with a needle around a cow’s undercarriage is likely to pick up all sorts of bacteria and gubbins. Injected with this cocktail of germs, poor Mrs Jesty not only caught cow pox but also suffered a high temperature, considerable pain, and her arm swelled up so badly that it was feared that she would lose it. For some days she was at death’s door, but gradually recovered.

When news leaked out that Jesty had deliberately introduced material from a lowly animal – the cow – into the body of his wife the local population were horrified. They hurled abuse at Jesty whenever they saw him, spat at him, and apparently even threw stones at him, such was their disgust at his behaviour. It wasn’t natural. It smacked of witch-craft. It flew against the Scriptures. It was treading into the Lord’s territory. Mrs Jesty might develop bovine tendencies – grow horns – or have uncontrollable urges if she saw a bull….

The public outrage meant that Jesty kept pretty quiet about his experiment. He was after all, a country farmer, not a man with any medical training, and had no understanding about disseminating knowledge by delivering papers to learned societies. He just kept shtumm, although it is likely that he occasionally carried out the procedure on other people in the locality. When he moved to Downshay Manor Farm at Worth Matravers near Swanage on the Dorset coast in about 1797 he met Dr.  Andrew Bell, a Scottish educationalist-come-preacher who went on to vaccinate over 200 of his parishioners in 1806.

The original vaccination took place two decades before Edward Jenner carried out his own experiments. Did he hear of Jesty and his darning needle? There is no way of knowing. Similar experiments had been taking place in Germany and elsewhere, and in many ways Jenner was simply following up on ideas contained in a paper delivered to the Medical Society London in 1765  by someone he knew well – a doctor from nearby Thornbury called Dr Fewster. No record of the paper remains but its title “Cow pox and its ability to prevent smallpox”  gives a strong hint  as to its message. Why didn’t Dr Fewster  carry out the experiment which Jenner later implemented? Probably because as a country doctor he made a very good living practising what was called the Suttonian Method of Variolation – basically giving a person small pox by infecting him or her with  material taken from a smallpox victim who was known to have had only a mild attack. Pioneered by three members of the Sutton family, this method made many doctors rich – and they weren’t about to embrace a totally new idea if it meant doing them out of their job.

Jenner made his experiment on eight-year-old James Phipps, proving the idea that immunity could be gained from vaccination. He repeated the experiment on numerous occasions – he delivered papers showing the results, he attended meetings and in his own words became the ‘clerk of vaccination’ – sending details and samples of cowpox matter to numerous countries. To Jenner, quite rightly, goes the fame – he was indeed the ‘father of immunology’. But he also made a lot of enemies – especially in the medical profession –  and many were outraged when the government voted to pay Jenner £10,000 as compensation for his loss of revenue as a country G.P. One of the opponents was so outraged that he arranged for his private Institute, known as  the Original Vaccine Pock Institute, to interview Jesty in 1805. They cross-examined him as to exactly what procedure he had carried out, how it had been done, the date, and so on. They interviewed his son and indeed infected the son with smallpox material to show that his immunity still existed despite a thirty-year interval. The Institute commissioned an artist, Mr M W Price, to paint Jesty’s portrait and issued a statement, printed in the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal  setting out Jesty’s claim to be the first vaccinator in history.

Benjamin Jesty: Oil painting by M.W. Sharp, 1805. Picture shown courtesy of  Wellcome Images

Jesty died at Worth Matravers on 16 April 1816 and was buried in the local churchyard. His widow, Elizabeth, died eight years later and was buried alongside him. Jesty’s headstone reads:

(Sacred) To the Memory OF Jesty (of Downshay) who departed this Life, April 16th 1816 aged 79 Years. He was born at Yetminster in this County, and was an upright honest Man: particularly noted for having been the first Person (known) that Introduced the Cow Pox by Inoculation, and who from his great strength of mind made the Experiment from the (Cow) on his Wife and two Sons in the Year 1774.


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